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June 19, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Taxes

From Iowa City, Thoughts About What A Community Needs to Thrive

Iowa City has been talking a lot about taxes lately. I understand that the economy makes us especially aware of how our leaders spend our tax dollars and whether or not we want to contribute more tax dollars to the public coffers. The discussion has been contentious and adversarial, however. Whenever we have a discussion about getting and spending tax dollars, we should take a step back and also discuss what these dollars mean. In essence, these dollars help create the commons.

Today, “the commons” generally means the resources and institutions to which a community has rights of access; in other words, what we hold in common, such as clean air, the public airwaves, streets, parks, public safety, schools, public art, etc. We determine the commons not only by tax dollars, but more importantly by human right, mutual commitment, and cultural and social value. Perhaps, sometimes anyway, if we move our tax arguments more toward a discussion of the value of our commons, we can find that philosophical common ground more readily and with less conflict.

Perhaps if Jay Walljasper had hung around with us for a month or two in Johnson County earlier this year, our debates over the local option sales tax and other recent public issues could have been less ugly.

Twin Cities resident Walljasper is a writer, speaker, former editor of the Utne Reader,current editor-at-large of Ode Magazine, and author of The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking. Walljasper is also a fellow and editor for On the Commons and their website Onthecommons.org. On the Commons defines themselves as “a network of citizens and organizations that champions the cause of the commons on many fronts. Our mission is to advance a new worldview by naming, claiming, protecting and expanding the commons for the good of all.” The organization defines “the commons” as “everything we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished, to future generations.” Walljasper says that not until recently did he realize his myriad interests—the environment, social justice, community empowerment, urban revitalization, etc.—were all part of “the commons.” Maybe Jay Walljasper could have put many of our current civic debates into this larger context of “the commons” for us.

Maybe he still can. In fact, he is coming to town, this month. He will speak at the Iowa City Public Library June 13 on “Everything I Need to Know I Learned at the Public Library: Important Lessons Drawn from Books, Librarians, Neighbors and Life Itself. Full disclosure time. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Iowa City Public Library. The reason I’m on the Board (and serving as President this year) is that I believe the Iowa City Public Library is a truly great institution—and one of the most important elements of our local commons.

Photo by annethelibrarian under a Creative Commons license stipulating no commercial use or alteration.

This summer, the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) is celebrating its fifth anniversary in its newly remodeled building. Five years ago, we celebrated an expansion of this community’s beloved library that nearly doubled its size, upgraded its infrastructure, and changed the face of downtown. In those five years, circulation and patronage have increased at a steady five, six, or seven percent each year. In the past five years, Iowa Citians, cardholders from other communities, and visitors have checked out over 7 million items. As a community center, the Library held over 1,500 meetings and events in its community rooms in the last six months of 2008 (that’s almost 10 a day).

Clearly, the community loves and uses its library. It exists for the common holding and distribution of knowledge, media materials (books, periodicals, DVDs, CDs, computer databases, etc.), and public gathering. Several years ago, Iowa Citians declared that this was a part of the commons we highly valued by voting to pass an $18.4 million bond referendum in order to expand and update an institution that is so much a part of our community identity.

“The commons” is not a happy land where flowers bloom and the sun shines all day. It’s a real place, with real people. Clashing opinions and realities are inevitable. But there are ways to conduct and support the commons with a greater mutual understanding, compassion, and respectful process than our community has shown in recent months.

Reprinted from Thomas Dean’s UR column in Little Village, Iowa City’s News and Culture Magazine (June 2009). www.LittleVillageMag.com